This essay was posted originally at NicoleDieker.com. It is the final installment of my monthly column on the creative practice, written these past two years for Nicole’s wonderful blog, which is about art and finance and problem-solving and doing creative work.
In January 2020, I declared in the first installment of this column: “In 2020, I’ll write my second book.” I did — and then I combined it with the first book (after cutting them both to gorgeous, bleeding ribbons), found a brilliant publisher, and embarked on a creative collaboration that has been a joy and a sanity and a lighthouse though the particular darknesses of these past two years.
Writing this column has been another such joy: one of learning by doing and learning by writing, thinking out loud about virtue and play and the nature of ideas, about magic and prayer and community and healing, through the lens of creative practice.
Out of that work have come a number of knowings that feel like they’ve inhabited me always.
The process of Shaping a large creative work.
The need for artistic Sabbath.
The why of it all.
Out of that work also have come important questions I suspect I’ll be living into a long time yet.
What is rest? How have we come to a point where so many of us just don’t know? And how do we reclaim it?
Thinking through all of that, while also composing, crowd-funding, and editing a book I adore…
What exhilarating work I have been given to do.
And how fortunate I am to have come through it just a bit more focused, a bit sharper. A bit more certain of who I am, and what I want to contribute.
I’ve been fortunate, too, in a creative practice that’s grown in ways I couldn’t have imagined two years ago. For example: the way it’s empowered my practice of community.
Tell the Turning began as me taking walks (so, just being myself) — with pen and paper, and an itch to make something of my own experience of being in this time and place. It grew into a small and vital, international network of friendship, good will, and good work.
And, in the last month, a network of collective patience, as the United States Postal Service, Canada Post, and the Royal Mail delayed deliveries, and US Customs & Border Protection held up, opened, and sometimes forgot to re-seal a number of poem-containing packages, including my own.
We have got used to convenience, in this as in many things. As our overburdened economic systems fray and split, we are having to re-learn patience (and kindness, and courage).
My poems were not stopped because CBP thought them dangerous. (Though they are, of course; poetry is very often dangerous; this is a feature.) Customs agents the world over are prosaically concerned about money.* Poetry, of course, doesn’t make any money to speak of. Fortunately, money is not why I write it.
It was a blue-sky November noon when I opened the mailbox at the bottom of my driveway, and there — at quite long last — was Tell the Turning.
I had thought I might shout, or throw up my arms. Something physical, to release the enormous tension built out of knowing my book existed, and being unable to perceive it with my senses.
In the moment, instead, I lifted my gaze to the maple leaves — the last of them, golden and falling — and said something to them, and to the sky, that was not words. I have a clear memory of that moment, but it cannot tell me the form or contents of that exhalation of thanks.
For hours after I carried the package indoors — and then for days after I opened it — I have been quiet in my spirit. This is not a quiet of calm dispassion, nor one of restful stillness. This quiet is a fast river in the very early morning, before the sun.
It’s hard to describe how unusual this is for me. This is a unique gift that Tell the Turning, its physical arrival, has brought me. I claim to dislike surprises, but this one has grown on me. I would love for it to last, and accept that it will not. Now is enough.
Enough is a difficult concept to keep before me. The response to Tell the Turning has been generous, to the point that we are discussing a second printing. There are possibilities, suddenly, that did not exist in my life until this moment.
And my challenge is to let them be just that for now: possibilities. The point of Tell the Turning was to create Tell the Turning. The point of right work — the deep joy of right work — is the work.
I recently heard, and have not stopped hearing, a quote from Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister: “Work is what we do to continue what God wanted done.” Whatever your experience of divinity, I think there is wisdom in this: acknowledging both the vitality and the Mystery of human endeavor. Human work as part of the ongoing work of Creation. With a small “c,” if you like, but it’s the same.
Poem-confiscating CBP agents are doing creation-work too — at the least, by feeding and housing and otherwise caring for themselves and their families. And, I like to imagine, by pausing to read a poem from an independently-published little book, semi-innocently on its way to someone else, before they shake off the spell and stamp the paperwork. Before the various algorithms to which we outsource our choices and our collective thinking — capitalism, bureaucracy, the entire concept of “the economy” — grind on.
Is that what I want to leave you with, in this, my last installment of this column? The image feels a little dark. And also: telling the truth is a crucial function of the poet.
I wrote something of this in Tell the Turning, though:
...there were prophets enough, and anyway, who listened? I want to celebrate...
The truth is, this is an especially difficult era. That unique pain and challenge isn’t going away soon. Covid is still with us, and the bitter divisions it has laid bare in our human populace may outlast the virus itself. The same is true of reckonings with racial injustice and economic disparity. Massive and comparatively recent shifts affecting the more-than-human world, like widespread habitat degredation for much of our planet’s life, and the breakdown of our global weather systems, will be with us even longer. Certainly beyond your life or mine.
And the truth is, there is so much of beauty, and interest and worth, in the here and now. There is so much good work left to do.
All of those are things we need to wrestle with, joyfully or determinedly, until they bless us or they break us, or both. Or we bless them.
I started this essay talking about poetry. I’ll end it by sharing a poem.
Regardless So much in life confers pleasure. In this moment nothing more than November's standard river-mist distilled from purple dawn. From six months' rain-soaked distance, the scent of lilac.
*Ask Stefan Lorenzutti (of my publisher, Bored Wolves) about his recent experience with humorlessly-philosophizing customs agents in Switzerland.